Math teacher Annie Lerew spends six days a week manning a table in front of St. James School in North Philadelphia.
Since schools closed in mid-March due to COVID-19, Lerew and her colleagues have been running an ambitious food operation, handing out 100 bags of groceries a day, in addition to supporting their students.
Staff at St. James School, 3217 W. Clearfield St., focused initially on serving their students and families, but their effort has branched out to include the surrounding community, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“There’s no doubt that this has strengthened our community,” said Head of School Dave Kasievich. “We’re all much closer than we were before, and we were pretty close before, but this has changed everything.”
Six members of the school’s faculty live on campus. The unique arrangement means the teachers, along with Kasievich, are quarantining together and have the pulse of the neighborhood.
“If we wouldn’t have had the residential component of folks living in the neighborhood, we wouldn’t have been able to provide this hands-on, street feeding program,” he said.
St. James School, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia, is tuition-free and enrolls students in grades 4 through 8. It opened in 2011 and has gradually expanded.
The school touts its holistic approach and wrap-around services. St. James employs three people who are devoted to helping graduates, the first class of which just finished their freshman year of college.
Lerew said the staff plan to engage those graduates as they get older, helping them to file taxes, search for jobs and learn about parenthood.
Everything, including the recently ramped-up food program, is funded by donations and partnerships, mostly with Episcopal churches.
Though it’s enrollment is only 86, Lerew said St. James is feeding 350 to 400 people a day at its table, which is open between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Each grocery bag has enough for a family of four, and staff also distributes bagged breakfasts. The school’s chef shows up at 6 a.m. to begin preparing 100 hot lunches, Lerew added.
She’s lived at St. James for eight years, but she’s never been closer to her neighbors.
“Now, I probably know 100 people by name and by sight, and I know their dog’s names,” Lerew said.
Like other schools, St. James has loaned Chromebook computers to students and shifted much of its instruction online. However, it’s still passing out packets and encourages students to stop by the table.
Some of the students have difficult home lives, which hasn’t been helped by the stay-at-home order, so Lerew asks them if they need to talk. If they accept, a trained staff member chats with them as they walk through the school’s block-long campus, which includes a church and graveyard.
“There’s really no substitute for real-life talking when you’re upset like that,” Lerew said.
“It’s everything from what you might consider silly things like — ‘My little brother’s just bothering me, and we’re in this tiny rowhouse. I just need space.’ — to severe situations like, ‘My parents are arguing all the time, and I’m sick of hearing the yelling,’” she added.
In addition, the school’s chaplain, the Rev. Andrew Kellner, is making home visits to check on families and, sometimes, pray with them, Kasievich said. He said Kellner also put together Lent bags to help families celebrate Holy Week and Easter last month.
No one knows when restrictions will be lifted, but the St. James’s staff said they will continue the food program and other outreach efforts through at least July 28, the last day of their non-traditional school year.
“The plan is that we can continue to do this work as long as it’s needed,” Lerew said. “We don’t know when this stops, and we’re going to keep going as long as we can.”
She suggested it could even continue when students return to the classroom as a way for the school to continue its new relationship with neighbors.
Last week, a woman came to Lerew after her roof collapsed. The homeowner was distraught and asked for Lerew to pray with her.
“You might not normally ask a stranger to pray with you, but we don’t really feel like strangers anymore,” Lerew said.